Authors: Caroline Fyffe,Kirsten Osbourne,Pamela Morsi
ll rights reserved
No part of this publication may be used or reproduced or transmitted in any manner whatsoever, electronically, in print, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of both Oliver-Heber Books and Tanya Anne Crosby, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
PUBLISHER'S NOTE: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Montana Dawn Copyright © Caroline Fyffe
Garters © Pamela Morsi
Lily © Kirsten Osbourne
n eerie keening echoed
through the trees. Luke McCutcheon straightened in the saddle, and his filly’s ears flicked forward, then back. “Easy, girl. Don’t dump me now.” Not with ten miles to go, he thought as he felt the green-broke filly hesitate. Lightly reining her to the solid side of the slippery embankment, he pressed her forward. Still, she balked at a mud-covered tree stump, snorting and humping her back.
Rain came down in sheets now, drenching them both. Squinting through the darkness, Luke scanned the clearing for any sign of the others he’d split from some three hours before.
A bolt of lightning flashed across the sky, followed by an explosive boom. Chiquita whirled a complete circle and crow-hopped several strides, sending an icy rivulet gushing from the brim of Luke’s hat.
“Hell.” Luke squeezed with his legs, pushing her onto the bit. “Flighty filly,” he said under his breath. “You’d be a great one if you’d ever settle down.”
Cresting the rise, Luke searched the horizon through the downpour. Nothing. Nobody in sight. “Long gone.” Frustrated, he slapped his gloved hand against his thigh and spun Chiquita in the opposite direction. He’d head back to camp and try again at daybreak.
Suddenly the uncanny cry came again, peculiar in its tone and just as troubling as the first time he’d heard it. “What…?” He’d never heard anything like it in his twenty-six years. He reined up for a moment, listening.
A minute slipped by, and then two. Still nothing but the unrelenting storm. A wounded animal? No. That queer sound was totally unfamiliar. He headed in its direction to investigate.
His efforts proved useless, and after several minutes he stopped. As if called, a streak of lightning lit up the landscape, revealing a dilapidated wagon half-hidden in the brush. It listed to one side, the wheels buried up to the axles. As quick as the light came, it vanished, leaving him in darkness.
He dismounted, cursing the jingle of his spurs. His gloved hand dropped to his sidearm and slid the gun from its holster. Another ghostly cry emanated from the wagon, raising the hair on his neck. Silently, he made his way over the uneven ground. With his back to the wagon’s side he reached around with his free hand and cautiously pulled back the canvas cover.
Only the wind answered, whipping a smattering of rain against his face. Not daring to take his eyes from the dark opening, he steeled himself against the chilly water dripping down his neck. He flexed his shoulders, willed himself to relax. Then a sound, like the rustling of a mouse, caught his attention. He held his breath.
“Coming in,” Luke warned. He trusted his instincts, and it didn’t feel like someone had a gun pointed at him. Cautious, however, his boot on the wheel axle, he lifted himself slowly through the opening. He paused, letting his eyes adjust to the dark interior.
The aroma of musty canvas engulfed him. And the smell of something else. Fear? Bending low he inched slowly through the cramped interior. He winced: a sharp edge. Fire and ice coursed up his leg. He stopped. Something was in the corner.
With his teeth, he pulled his glove from his hand and reached into his inside pocket for a match. He struck it and held it high. It winked brightly for only a moment and was extinguished by a gust of wind. But not before he saw a woman crouched down, her eyes the size of twin harvest moons.
A soft panting was her reply.
“Your lantern. Where is it?” He felt around the rafters. Finding a lamp, he lit it and turned down the wick until a soft light glowed around the cramped area.
He knelt beside the woman. Beads of sweat trickled off her brow and her breath came fast. Eyes wide with fright were riveted on the gun he held. Then he noticed a stick clenched between her teeth. His gaze flew downward. Her knees were drawn up and a blanket covered the lower half of her body. But there was no mistaking what was underneath.
Luke leaned toward her, intending to take the stick from her mouth when excruciating pain exploded in his head and shot down his neck. “What the…?” He turned. Stars danced before his eyes and he fell to the wagon floor. His gun slid from his grasp.
all Faith could manage before she was overcome by an all-consuming urge to bite down on the stick with all her might. She wanted, needed, to keep her eyes open and on the stranger, the large man who’d climbed into her wagon, sending her heart skittering up her throat. But it was no use. Another contraction began, and it was next to impossible to keep her eyes open; the icy fire gripped her stomach with a grasp as strong as the devil’s.
Mentally counting, she wrestled against her impulse to tighten up as burning beads of sweat dripped into her eyes. Eight…nine…ten. Ten seconds of sheer torture. Then the hurt eased, and Faith lay on her pallet, spent. The stick dropped from her teeth.
Summoning what strength she had, she pushed up on her elbow. “Why’d you hit him, Colton?” she asked the wide-eyed boy, a frying pan dangling in his hands. “I hate to think how mad he’ll be when he wakes up.” Dread rippled within her as she studied the cowboy lying within an arm’s reach.
“Thought he was gonna hurt ya, Ma.”
Faith drew in a shaky breath. “Quick, give me the gun.”
Colton carefully picked up the revolver. Faith took it, feeling its steely cold weight in her hands.
The man moved slightly and his lashes quivered on his darkly whiskered cheek. His face, hard with angles and chapped from the cold, lay flat against the wagon bed. He moaned as his face screwed up in a grimace, which sent Faith’s heart careening. The rest of him looked mighty big under his rain slicker and leather chaps.
Overwhelming despair descended. Just today she’d dared to dream that she and Colton had escaped her brother-in-law Ward, and that he’d given up his hunt for them. Horses couldn’t drag her back to Nebraska to marry him and subject her children to the cruelty of that family. Their despicable plot framing her for Samuel’s accidental fall was evil. Truth didn’t matter, though, when they had the law, or lack of it, on their side. She felt like crying every time she thought about it. The Browns wanted her farm in Kearney and would stop at nothing, it seemed, to get it. So far this journey had been extremely difficult—long days and nights full of danger and fear—and one she wasn’t ready to see end futilely.
And now this. In her mind she weighed their chances against the man before her. When her gaze moved back up to his face, her heart stopped.
he stranger watched
her through narrowed eyes. He struggled to a sitting position and stared at the gun she had pointed at his chest. “Give it…to me.”
His tone was colder than the weapon she held. Faith shook her head.
He turned and frowned at Colton, whose hair was rumpled, eyes hot and angry. “You’re dangerous with that thing,” he accused, and reached for the offending object. The small boy reared back, the heavy iron skillet raised high in the air. “Just settle down, kid. I’m one of the good guys.”
“Colton, go back to your bed,” Faith ordered. The firm grip of a contraction began and would soon move painfully to her back. The boy did as he was told, crawling behind some crates in the opposite corner. “Don’t”—Faith panted a few times, the gun wobbling in her hands—“come out till I call.”
“Yes, Ma. I just didn’t want that sidewinder to hurt ya none.”
Even in the darkened interior Faith couldn’t miss the stranger’s amused expression.
“Sidewinder? The name’s Luke. Luke McCutcheon.”
“Well, mister, as soon as my ma is finished birthin’ my brother, we’ll be on our way. Won’t we, Ma?”
Faith didn’t answer. It was all she could do to hold the gun.
Mr. McCutcheon’s face softened, and his gaze touched hers. He reached out and gently took the heavy weapon from her hands. Her fear ebbed slightly. Deep inside she felt this wasn’t the kind of man a woman had to fear. Not like Samuel.
He holstered the firearm and stood, a little unsteady. “I’ll get help. Someone who’s done this before. Our camp cook is always boasting on all his accomplishments. I’m sure delivering a baby is one of ’em. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
But, he hesitated. Looked to the wagon opening and back at her, clearly uncertain. Fingered the rim of his hat. “It’s best. If you have trouble, Lucky is the man to help.”
“Don’t go.” Even though she didn’t know him, his presence was comforting. Something inside her chest—something she hadn’t felt in a very long time—ached. She wanted to trust him.
Without warning, hot liquid gushed between her legs. Faith gasped in surprise, cradling her belly for support. Mortified, she pressed some folded towels under the blanket to her body. An unmerciful urge to cry surfaced. She turned her face into the darkness and let the tears fall.
“No, no, don’t cry. It’s natural. No need to worry.” He slowly backed away. “I’m going now. But I’ll be back. I promise.”
off his hat and let the rain buffet his face. It felt good, cold and clean. He knew weather. He knew rain. He didn’t know the mystery of a woman’s body in childbirth. Before he could change his mind, he strode over to where Chiquita stood. The filly stuck out her muzzle and nudged him.
“All right. We’re going.” He looked back at the wagon. Everything was quiet within. Sliding his foot into the stirrup, he swung into the saddle.
He’d faced danger and even death many times. Hell, he’d once killed a cougar with only a knife. He considered himself a brave man. But right now, he was scared to death. Scared by a small woman and a baby.
“Damnation!” He couldn’t just ride off and leave her alone. What if it were his little sister out here? He’d sure want someone to help her.
Riding back to the wagon, he dismounted and tied Chiquita to the rear wagon wheel and climbed back inside. “We’ll get through this together,” he announced. “I’ve delivered my share of calves. It can’t be much different.”
Without much trouble he found a cloth and held it out in the rain. He stroked the young woman’s forehead and cheeks with the cool cotton rag, wiping away drops of beaded moisture and tears. Her face contorted and her shaky hand snaked from under the cover and rubbed her large belly.
“Please,” the woman said. “Can you help me sit up?”
Her plea was a velvety whisper as she watched him closely with distrustful eyes. What was she thinking? Her gaze followed his hand as he reached out to help her. So wary. So
Gently, he eased her up, bracing her back against a trunk. “Better?”
Luke went for the canteen on his saddle. Hunching his shoulders against the wind, he inhaled the sweetness of wet earth. It grounded him. He desperately needed that now with the woman in the wagon doing crazy things to his insides. He wanted to help her. To take the pain away. He wanted to be what she needed, though that made no logical sense whatsoever.
Inside, he held the canteen to her dry lips. A blast of wind rocked the wagon, swaying it precariously to one side. She grasped his arm, clinging to him with strength at odds with her size. “Whoa, easy now. Just the wind. This wagon’s not going anywhere.” Her expression, tight and apologetic, tore at his gut.
Moments ticked by. She rested. What should he do in preparation—boil some water? Not in this storm. He fidgeted with the horsehair clip he kept in his pocket, turning it over in his fingers.
She was watching him again with those big coffee-colored eyes. Her hair, mussed and tangled, lay heavily across her small shoulders, a combination of rich chocolate and flaxen highlights. Mahogany. The exact color of the rocker his ma had in the kitchen at home.
“What’s your name?”
“Is someone out there looking for you, Faith? A husband?”
She shook her head and began to pant.
Anxiety burned hot in his belly as he watched her struggle. Taking her hand he fitted it tightly in his. “Go on. Squeeze. It might help.”
She did. Luke was astonished again by her strength. Her forehead crinkled and her mouth pursed. Sweat trickled down both temples. Nostrils flared. A series of expressions slid across her face as fast as clouds move in a storm. Then she quieted and her grip eased up, but she didn’t let go. Her eyes drifted closed. Minutes crawled by. His thumb stroked softly across her fingers, which were delicate in size, but roughened from hard work.…
One hour of torture crept by, then another. Would Roady come looking for him when he didn’t make it back to camp? Even if he did, Luke had ridden farther north than he normally would have. He had a slim-to-nothin’ chance of getting any help here.
It was dawn, and Luke wondered how she kept on. Her grasp had long since lost its strength. When he’d laid her back onto her pallet she was no stronger than a kitten; he was more or less holding on to her.
She gave a gentle tug. “I think it’s coming.”